Giving Social Security data

The Baltimore Sun

The Q:

From the local gym to the utility company, almost everyone wants your Social Security number before they'll do business with you. Some have a legitimate reason: for example, credit reporting agencies if you're checking your credit history or requesting a credit freeze. Some don't, like the electric company and phone company.

Reader Dale Rains wondered whether all government agencies need the nine digits, too. More specifically, he wondered why he had to provide it to the Department of Assessments and Taxation to get the Maryland Homestead Tax Credit.

"My friends and I, who have lived in our homes for over 30 years, question the need to give one more government agency our Social Security numbers, fearing more identity theft," Rains said in an e-mail. "We wonder which method of applying is safer, if safe at all - the electronic filing of the application or the hard copy to be sent through the mail with the obvious information that our Social Security numbers, address and signatures are inside?"

"I feel that this invasion of our privacy is not necessary," Rains added.

The A:

One-third of Maryland homeowners have their properties reassessed by the state every year. The Homestead Tax Credit keeps tax bills in check by capping the amount of assessment subject to tax.

This credit used to be automatically applied to every home. A new law requires that the credit be given to principal residences only. Rented or multiple properties of a single owner will no longer qualify.

All homeowners will have to submit a one-time application to establish eligibility for the credit, which leads us back to Rains' question about the need for Social Security numbers.

We're with Rains. We loathe sharing our private digits with most everyone.

But when it comes to government agencies, there are times when you are required to hand it over, according to a San Diego consumer advocacy group, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Some government agencies, including tax authorities, welfare offices and state Departments of Motor Vehicles, can require your Social Security number as mandated by federal law, the clearinghouse says.

Others may request the numbers, leading you to believe you must provide it.

"The reason why the Social Security number is required is to verify the residency of the person applying for the Homestead Tax Credit," said Robert Young, associate director of the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, which administers the Homestead Tax Credit. "The purpose of the application for the tax credit is to prevent property owners from receiving the credit on multiple properties, rented properties or on second, vacation home properties. The credit is intended for the homeowner's principal residence.

"The Social Security number is used to file your tax return and most people file their tax returns from their principal residence," Young said. "So we match the Social Security information you provide us with income tax filings and state data records for verification."

It's funny that Rains asks about security since there was a slight glitch in the system when the application page went live Jan. 2.

A property owner with a sharp eye, Peter Nguyen, notified The Sun's Jamie Smith Hopkins that the online application page wasn't encrypted, and the state agency corrected the problem. About 900 people signed up that day before the problem was discovered, but Young said there was no known personal data breach.

"There are two parts to our encryption," Young said. "The first part happens as you're submitting your application to us. For a minute or two, as you're typing in your Social Security number before you click submit, that first part wasn't encrypted. But once it was submitted to us in the second part of this, your information was instantly encrypted in our system.

"For anyone to have gotten your number, they would have had to have been outside of your house, hacking into your wireless system," Young said. "You can never say 'never,' of course, but nobody believes it was possible that the system was breached that day. We took the page down at 4 p.m. that day and fixed the problem."

To which method of filing is safer, snail mail or electronic mail, Young assures us that both are equally secure. Think of it as filing your federal income tax, he said.

"It's the same type of protections and confidentiality," Young said. "Our system has the same protections that the Internal Revenue Service uses, whether you send it electronically or by mail."

For further inquiries, homeowners can e-mail:

Reach Consuming Interests by e-mail at consuminginterests@ or by phone at 410-332-6151. Find an archive of Consuming Interest columns at

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